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Head of the class - 89%

Bertilak, July 10th, 2007

Ah yes, 1986. Enormous hair was mandatory. Clothes only came in the most eyeball-searing shades of primary colour. People aspired to owning mobile phones so big that it took three grown men to lift them. And Head of David sounded like nothing on earth.

These days, bands who construct entire albums from squalling feedback with bursts of bludgeoning drums and chest-compressing sub-sonic bass are seemingly ten-a-penny. But back in the mid-‘80s, hearing a band like Head of David, or one of their proto-industrial, hardcore (in the original sense of the word) peers such as Swans or Big Black, was a truly jaw-dropping experience. There was such an utter refusal to compromise on the intent of creating the most brutal, downright dirty sound embedded in every groove of the vinyl that it was positively unsettling to hear, even when diluted across the tinny airwaves of a late-night radio show. Whereas many of their contemporaries in those early days of what journalists delighted in calling ‘sonic terrorism’ veered off into more user-friendly art-rock experimentalism (eg Sonic Youth) or just downright weirdness (eg Butthole Surfers), Head of David, possibly as a result of growing up in down-to-earth Birmingham like Black Sabbath (namechecked on their second album), always had a streak of true no-nonsense metal running through them that set them apart. This would lead ultimately to the revered bands Godflesh and Jesu but it was with the criminally under-rated Head of David that experimental industrial metal all started.

However, it did, in fact, all start without the presence of Justin Broadrick, who, at the time of this recording, was still in Napalm Death and the ultra-obscure Fall of Because (drumming duties here being performed by Paul Sharp). ‘LP’, in fact, is a sort of compilation, with the A side comprised of the debut ‘Dogbreath’ EP (minus its version of ‘Newly Shaven Saint’) and the B side (given the title ‘Godbreath’) actually a session recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 late-night show (including a re-recorded version of ‘Newly Shaven Saint’). Both recordings date from 1986, though, and the album does certainly work as a cohesive entity that showcases the early Head of David style. The follow-up album ‘Dustbowl’ (engineered by Big Black’s Steve Albini) was arguably more professional but, in many ways, Head of David benefit from having their rough edges very much intact.

The most notable aspect of the ‘Dogbreath’ side of ‘LP’ is the feedback: it’s drenched in the stuff. ‘Smears’ kicks off with a shrill burst of wincing feedback before the slack-stringed almost subterranean bass of Dave Cochrane begins its fast runs, accompanied by a staccato, skittering drum and a guitar that slides queasily over the top. Indeed, the defining characteristic of early Head of David is that the tracks are very much bass/drum orientated; they hold the track together while the guitar does its own thing.

This bludgeoning assault is coupled with the sort of lyrics that show more excitable death metal bands that sometimes less is more when it comes to creating a sense of nausea in the listener: Stephen Burroughs’ hoarse horrified yell of “smears on the sheets/smears on the walls” is the sort of thing that lives with you for a long time afterwards as you try (not) to imagine just what it is he’s witnessed.

Mid-way through, the entire song stops dead for a good three seconds before kicking off again, thence building once more to a scream of isolated feedback before a crashing, all-in conclusion.

Eric Jurenovski’s peculiar, meandering guitar is never especially high in the mix, which increases its distinctive isolated appeal. Overall, the production is not ‘attacking’, the sound is almost at arm’s length rather than tearing out of the speakers, but this quality just adds to the sense of dislocated menace that the band generates. The emphasis is more on the drum sound, which is bass heavy, with very little use of snare and reverberation. ‘I Will Fall at Your Feet’, opening with oddly pastoral cascades of feedback, soon displays this characteristic sound, driven by a twin pummelling from the thick bass guitar and the drum, its cymbal crashes sounding more like shattering glass than anything else.

The guitar solo is frenetic but deceptively simple, the notes circling round at high speed but not really progressing, creating a tight, claustrophobic effect of cyclical distortion. It leads into a brief and peculiar vocal sample (of somebody apparently talking about their hair but no doubt really something far more sinister) before the solo repeats, gradually disappearing beneath the feedback before the track cuts off completely, with an audible click.

The omnipresent feedback on ‘Dogbreath’ is key to Head of David’s uncompromising approach at this time because it is in no way a carefully crafted musical component. This is very much the ‘chalk down a blackboard’ style of feedback, there quite simply because the band is so loud that there’s little else they can do about it. The closest they get to using feedback coherently is on ‘White Bastard’, the most experimental track on the whole of ‘LP’, where, after a pulsing, high-pitched sound and intermingled garbled voices, a constant, feedback wall emerges, rising and falling like a breathing entity. This blizzard of white noise foregrounds the bass and drums, both crushingly slow. The bass plays just two notes in the initial part of the track (1, 1, 1, 2 – 1, 1, 1, 2) but by the end even the variety of that second note has gone (1, 1, 1 – 1, 1, 1). The vocals are virtually spoken and seem to encapsulate Head of David’s brutal world view - “I’ll beat my drum/and I’ll beat you too/you don’t deserve/my company”.

There is a guitar solo on ‘White Bastard’ but it is virtually indistinguishable against the raging torrent of feedback, which even manages to bleed into the following track before it finally fades out. ‘Rocket USA’ is a cover version of a 1977 track by the American New Wave electronic band Suicide. Head of David, however, strip it remorselessly of its arty overtones and create a monolithic, minimalist track of unsettling dread, with simple reverberating guitar notes echoing against a rolling bass and a drum so solid that it sounds like somebody hitting a leather sofa with a baseball bat. The vocals are entirely clean and its roots as a cover version are perhaps evident in a clearer structure than the previous tracks, with a section emphasising the guitar and drum before the bass returns, even heavier than before. The song ends as it began with the cavernously echoing plucked notes of the lone guitar. This simplicity is an unexpectedly effective way of closing ‘Dogbreath’ but also showcases that Head of David didn’t lose their power when they toned down their assault.

‘Dogbreath’ was recorded in March 1986 and just a month later Head of David was recording the debut session that was destined to end up as ‘Godbreath’ for John Peel’s radio show. Radio 1 sessions are a divisive topic amongst music fans, some believing that bands create exceptional versions of their tracks when the pressure of recording a formal album is removed, while others criticise the generic production done by people who may have no empathy for the band who happen to be in the studio that day. Head of David had an unexpected problem to contend with on this occasion though, as when they were about to start recording the session the studio suffered a major electrical problem, meaning that the band was forced to record all the songs as if live, playing simultaneously with no recourse to overdubs. This setback seems only to have spurred them on.

Most notable across ‘Godbreath’ is the reduction in overloading feedback, with only ‘Newly Shaven Saint’ really displaying the unbridled distortion familiar from ‘Dogbreath’. ‘Joyride Burning X’, meanwhile, is created from carefully maintained and suppressed feedback, a measure of the extra control the band was keen to display as they developed. The drum sound, too, shows a marked change, being far crisper with more evident use of snare throughout, such as the precise emphasis given to the beat on the chorus of ‘Joyride Burning X’. (Whether this drum sound was due to a conscious decision on Head of David’s part or the influence of the BBC producer is perhaps a matter for conjecture.)

‘Snuff Rider MC’ raises the pace from anything on the ‘Dogbreath’ side, driven along by the sharpness of the drums, though still with the traditionally disconnected guitar running over the top. Burroughs’ vocals have also gained an extra level of urgency, his roaring and intense performance on this track stretching the ability of the record’s hand-written lyric sheet to do justice to him, his final cry of “clean up the filth” being rendered in strident block capitals - “CLEAN UP THE FILLLTHTH!!” - which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate reflection. The line was obviously of crucial significance to the band, as it is also etched into the run-out groove of the vinyl.

The ability that Head of David displayed in ‘Rocket USA’ to maintain tension even in a relatively quiet track is again evident in ‘Joyride Burning X’, where the slow tom-tom drum and bass underlay measured, sinuous feedback from the guitar, which acts like a negative print of a formal tune. The middle section effectively employs a dual vocal, with the words delivered slightly out of sync with one another, adding an extra sense of eerie foreboding to lines like “the blood on the screen/spells my name”. The overall effect is strangely muted but nonetheless poundingly intense.

One of Head of David’s principal lyrical interests, which would be explored throughout their career, was an English-outsider fascination with America, not so much as a promised land but as the epitome of the vast and lurking threat that so disturbed them. ‘Dustbowl’ would essentially be an entire album devoted to the topic of US-fixated fear and loathing but here ‘Rocket USA’, ‘Snuff Rider MC’, ‘Joyride Burning X’ and, most explicitly, ‘Shadow Hills California’ all deal with Americana, at least in part. ‘Shadow Hills California’ points to the style of ‘Dustbowl’ especially strongly, as the guitar is now to the fore and driving the song, rather than the usual disconnected element over the top. The solo is central, even if cracked and deconstructed, and only the gritty thudding drum harks back to ‘Dogbreath’.

One of the reasons why ‘LP’ works so well as a whole, despite its piecemeal genesis, is that it is bookended by probably Head of David’s two greatest moments. What ‘Smears’ started, ‘Newly Shaven Saint’ finishes. It’s a splendidly fast and frenetic track, with everyone playing all out and crackling spikes of feedback throughout. The higher toned guitar counterpoints the straining vocal, although Burroughs is straining with utter commitment and intensity rather than lack of ability, and his despairing shout of “We’re crawling on our knees/crawling on our knees/brought down to our knees/brought down to our knees” is truly harrowing. The drum beats and cymbal crashes build up the pitch towards the end as everyone in the band gives their all, the track ending with the same ear-bursting drill of feedback with which ‘LP’ began. A perfect circle.

Although ‘Godbreath’ features a cleaner sound and less feedback than ‘Dogbreath’, with the bass not as prominent or dirty, it is the more conventional song structure of ‘Shadow Hills California’ that really signposts the future development of the band. The addition of Justin Broadrick led to the more focused aggression and polished production of ‘Dustbowl’, which possibly attracts more attention owing to his presence, but ‘LP’ should not be overlooked. Albums that are truly experimental rarely maintain their initial capacity to disconcert when listened to more than two decades later but ‘LP’ has lost none of its disorientating power. The fact is that music this far off the scale is not brought back into the fold by just the passing of the years: it would still sound shocking if it had been recorded yesterday.

Metalheads who revere only the riff and the majestic solo would probably not be interested - this isn’t called ‘experimental industrial metal’ for nothing, after all - but those who want to know what spawned Godflesh and their ilk should regard this as essential. Maybe 1986 wasn’t so bad after all, providing you can forget about the legwarmers…